November 18, 2005

Continental Drift (Jeremy Rabkin, Fall 2005, Claremont Review of Books)

Imagine a new world counterpart to the European Union…. A series of treaties bestows lawmaking power to councils of representatives from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Grenada, Belize, Brazil, and a dozen or so other countries. Agriculture and labor regulations are made in secret meetings of the labor and agriculture ministers; environmental and safety regulations by environment and safety ministers; and so on. These laws and regulations—elaborated in suitable detail by a Commission of the Americas in, let us say, Caracas, Venezuela—exceed the reach of the current U.S. Code and take priority over U.S. laws. A court in, say, Belize, charged with giving force to these laws, has the authority to override any constitutional objections from the U.S. Supreme Court. The presidents or prime ministers of all these states then meet periodically to expand the powers of the Union of the Americas, by mutual agreement among themselves.

Of course, anyone who proposed such a scheme would be dismissed out of hand. It would subvert our Constitution’s system of accountability, along with its checks and balances. But to state the objection in this way may be too abstract. Most Americans would instinctively recoil from this project on the grounds that it is, well, nuts. Most Americans would prefer to keep their own country.

Is the comparison unfair? Some Europeans have sentimentalized the project of European integration as a way to restore the unity of medieval Europe before it was shattered by the Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution, or the terrible wars of the 20th century. But the nations of today’s E.U. have never been governed in common. Neither ancient Rome nor its ramshackle successor, the Holy Roman Empire, stretched so far to the north or the east or the west. There has never before been a single political unit stretching from Portugal to Estonia, from Ireland to Greece, from Sweden to Cyprus.

True, before the United States, there was no polity covering the middle of North America, from one coast to the other. But the comparison remains instructive. After the original 13 states established a common federal government, the Union embraced more and more new states until, within little more than 60 years, it had expanded to the far shores of the Pacific. California entered the Union only two years after its territory was acquired from Mexico, but it already had a majority of English-speaking residents from the more settled parts of the U.S. Hawaii became an American possession in 1898, but 60 years later there was still intense debate about whether this territory, where most inhabitants were of Asian descent, could be incorporated as a full state of the Union. Puerto Rico, acquired at almost the same time as Hawaii, is still not a state. If the majority on that Spanish-speaking island ever sought full statehood, it is not at all certain that it would be admitted.

You can denounce Americans or past generations of Americans for racism, intolerance, chauvinism, or xenophobia. There is, no doubt, truth to such charges. But they are largely beside the point. The overwhelming majority of Americans are descended from immigrants who did not originate in the British Isles. In other words, the “native” population is now far outnumbered by descendants of “others.” Scarcely any Americans notice this fact. A son of Arab immigrants commands American forces in Iraq, but the ancestry of General John Abizaid is not an issue. Nor does anyone notice that for 20 of the past 40 years, the office of U.S. Secretary of State has been held by an immigrant or by the child of immigrants.

Our tradition of assimilating newcomers to America is old—so old that it worked even when we brought America to the foreigners. After acquiring the Louisiana Territory, President Jefferson insisted that the existing French-speaking community conduct its political affairs in English. Louisiana has done so ever since, and without protest, despite the persistence of a sizable Cajun-speaking community.

Since the 19th century, immigrants have been required to learn English and demonstrate their knowledge of American history and institutions before becoming citizens. They must swear an oath, pledging to “support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and promising, if required, to “take up arms” against these enemies. We have extracted this oath from grandmothers and disabled people, along with more suitable military recruits.

At bottom, the U.S. is, at least by the theory of our founders, a mutual defense agreement among citizens. Despite our differences, we stand together against common enemies. We entrust a common government to make what can be, literally, life or death decisions on our behalf. But it is not simply the government that constitutes our political community. The stability of the government, and of the Constitution that constitutes and limits that government, reflects the solidarity among the people. New Yorkers may not be the most beloved people in America, but the attack on the World Trade Center was seen throughout the country—in distant Hawaii as in Alabama or Michigan—as an attack on Americans, requiring a common American response.

Whatever else it is, the European Union certainly is not a counterpart to the U.S. in this respect. But what it actually is, no one can say. The collapse of the E.U. constitution is a reminder that political entities don’t retain authority when they have no clear purpose that citizens can respect—or even grasp.

America is an exceptional country in many ways, which is part of the reason it continues to provoke so much envy, resentment, and hostility from Europeans. But as a nation-state, the United States is not at all unusual. The European Union itself is a confederation—or a collection, anyway—of separate nation-states. It presupposes these states, even more than the U.S. Constitution presupposes the states in our Union.

The American Founders were eager to assure that the federal government could make decisions on behalf of the whole American people and execute its own laws and policies. State governors play no role in our federal councils and even senators serve for fixed terms, whether state governments pass to a different local majority or not. By contrast, E.U. policies are made by the immediate representatives of the member-state governments. All E.U. policies are then implemented by the member-state governments, because the E.U. has no police, field agents, or inspectors, and no local courts of its own.

The strange structure of the E.U. reflects the irreducible fact that Europeans do not trust each other all that much. The E.U. Parliament has only very limited powers because member states have never been prepared to trust their fates to a European-wide majority.

Remember just a couple years ago when folks had convinced themselves not only that the EU was inevitable but that it would be a serious counterweight to the U.S.?



May 2, 2005

The “S” Word: A review of The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence by Jeremy A. Rabkin (John Yoo, Claremont Review of Books)

Unlike many who write in the field of international relations and law these days, Rabkin, a professor of political science at Cornell, has a deep knowledge of American constitutional history and political theory. To him, the conflict between the U.S. and supporters of international law and organizations concerns not merely power and raw national interest, but also ideology. Rabkin shows that the current contest between the United States and other nations who would rely on international law and institutions is not just the effort of middling nations to restrain the world’s only remaining superpower through rhetoric and non-military means. It is a competition driven primarily by ideology and belief.

Centuries of murderous interstate warfare have led Europeans to seek to bury nationalism within broader supranational entities, a tendency that has disabled their confederation from exercising real national-security powers. As a result of their antagonism to independent sovereign states, Rabkin writes, “Europeans are prepared to cede vast governing power to ‘common’ institutions, but the different peoples of Europe do not trust each other enough to organize themselves into a single state.” Europeans have “learned how to coordinate without compulsion, taking over basic law-setting responsibilities from actual governments without any of the threatening aspects of state power.” In effect, Europeans attribute their postwar success to international law and institutions, not the aid and protection of the U.S., and thus want to export the former, and restrain the latter, everywhere. Rabkin notes that Europe “is already so diverse, it can see its governance techniques as almost universal—or as an embryo of a pattern of governance that can be global.”

But European-style global governance conflicts fundamentally with the principle of national sovereignty. Drawing expertly on the framers’ thinking, Rabkin defines sovereignty as a government’s “capacity to enforce” its wishes over a defined territory, its ability to protect its people against outside invasion, and a people’s “control of force” by the government. “Sovereignty appeared as a way of ordering and constraining political life,” Rabkin argues. “It insisted that law and force must be joined, and that power to command must be linked with the power to protect—especially against outsiders.” The framers enshrined this understanding in the Constitution by creating a federal government of limited, enumerated, and separated powers that could provide for the common defense, but that did not answer to any legal authority higher than the American people. To Rabkin, the Constitution is the very expression, if not perfection, of sovereignty.

Advocates of global governance believe that sovereignty, particularly of the American kind, stands in the way of more effective world cooperation and harmony. Louis Henkin, the dean of American international law professors, has even called on scholars to banish sovereignty as the “S word.” For Rabkin, such ideas are dangerously utopian. American military and economic power, not international law and institutions, defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, attained victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, sponsored the peaceful spread of democracy to Europe and Asia, and ended human rights abuses from Haiti to Iraq. People can find security only in sovereign states—which draw their political legitimacy from the protection they provide—not in international organizations like the United Nations, which lacks an army and whose actions are subject to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. If the U.S. were to place its security in the U.N.’s hands, not only would it lose its national character, Rabkin suggests, but the world would suffer, too.

Instead, Rabkin offers a distinctively American suggestion for foreign policy. On the one hand, “internationalists” believe the U.S. should wield its influence to build durable international organizations that will outlast its own predominance. Many if not most international law professors, and more than a few officials in the State Department bureaucracy, fall into this camp. On the other hand, “imperialists” want the U.S. to use its power to reorder the world for our own and the world’s benefit. It might not be wrong to count William Kristol and Robert Kagan in this camp, along with the writers of President Bush’s Second Inaugural address. Rabkin, however, suggests a third path, one built upon the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents, which create for Rabkin the principle of “constitutional integrity,” prevent any international law, commitment, or institution from exercising authority superior to our founding documents.

If international law or institutions were permitted to become a policy-making forum, the American people would lose their connection to their government and its founding principles. We would no longer be a nation. For this reason, Rabkin writes, “The United States needs to safeguard its sovereignty in order to safeguard its own form of government. It is not simply a matter of legal technicalities. It is about preserving a structure under which Americans—in all their diversity, with all their rights, and all their differences of opinion—can live together in confidence and mutual respect, as fellow citizens of the same solid republic.” So, Rabkin seems to say to our diplomats, cooperate all you like, but always remember that the United States, because of the primacy of its Constitution, has the right to ignore international law or withdraw from its institutions.

Professor Rabkin, who may or may not want to be known as Ann Coulter’s mentor, has two essays in our forthcoming anthology on sovereignty. Americans must always remember that for us sovereignty is a one way street–ours is inviolable; yours depends on what you do with it.


October 18, 2004

A Sovereign Nation?: Jeremy Rabkin Makes the Case for American: a review of The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence by Jeremy A. Rabkin (Adam Wolfson, September 8, 2004, The Weekly Standard)

Today, because the United States failed to win U.N. authorization for its use of force, the Iraq war is widely viewed among both European and American liberals as an illegal, immoral war. It’s tempting to chalk this up to mere politics or resentment against American power. Yes, France wants to serve as the great counterweight to the American “hyperpower,” and Democrats long for a Kerry victory in November. But, as Rabkin demonstrates, deeper forces are at play. A moral revolution has taken place over the last several decades, one that rejects the notion of national sovereignty. What’s needed, Rabkin believes, is not merely a political argument in favor of Bush’s foreign policy, but a moral defense of the idea of sovereignty, as such. Only then will America’s recent actions be seen in their proper context and thus become intellectually respectable and morally defensible.

This is the service Rabkin’s book performs. The Case for Sovereignty provides us with a historical and intellectual genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, as well as its would-be replacement, global governance. Today, as Rabkin concedes, national sovereignty is widely thought to be a selfish concept and, worse, the cause of conflict among nations. It is also thought to be antidemocratic and chauvinistic. Yet, by means of several forays into intellectual history, Rabkin shows this to be utterly mistaken. Sovereignty is the friend of democracy, human rights, and political pluralism, while global governance is the abettor of dictatorship, lost rights, and a worldwide political monoculture.

In the history of political thought, sovereignty is a relatively new idea. It emerged only with the Enlightenment. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was wracked by unlimited wars. Crusading, transcendent faiths–religious and other–demanded universal allegiance. Borders were of no consequence. It was to impose order on this dire situation that the idea of sovereignty was first invented by such early thinkers as Grotius and Bodin, among others. They viewed it as a way of consolidating and confining political power and thereby limiting the reach and effects of war. Thus, in their treatises, these political philosophers attempted to identify what was essential to the proper exercise of sovereignty: the power to make laws, the power to tax, and the power to declare war as well as to terminate hostilities. The lists were long and varied, but as Rabkin recounts, the attributes of sovereignty were neatly summarized hundreds of years later by Abraham Lincoln when, in defense of the rights of the Union, he declared sovereignty must mean at the very least “a political community, without a political superior.”

The acceptance of the idea of sovereignty led over time to the formation and spread of nation-states–which are powerful political units indeed and not always to the good, as nationalism is a sword that a variety of dictators and adventurers would find useful. But sovereignty has worked, Rabkin argues, most of all as the handmaiden of many of our most cherished liberal democratic ideals. It encouraged the growth of democracy, particularly by enforcing the notion that consent of individuals is the ultimate source of political authority. It allowed political pluralism to flourish. It cultivated the ideal of religious toleration, with citizenship open to all consenting individuals regardless of faith. And it has been the friend of limited government, since sovereignty begins with the rights of individuals.

Rabkin calls this “the moral argument for sovereignty,” and the alternative mode of organizing political life, he argues, has always been a “crusading faith”–as demonstrated, most recently, in the liberal dream of global governance.

Even as we defend American sovereignty from transnationalist threats we need to acknowledge that America itself is the greatest threat to traditional sovereignty in the world today. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein, after all, were deposed for no other reason than that they violated our standards of democratic legitimacy. Our own crusading faith emboldened us to completely ignore the sovereignty of Afghanistan and Iraq–and we’re not done yet…